Ruby and The Duke – Eastside Arts Festival
Monday 15th August 2016
The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast
An old man in a Sutton Coldfield nursing home is very happy tonight. He’s just been told there’s a full house at the Strand Cinema in East Belfast for a special screening of the 2011 documentary ‘Ruby and the Duke’.
Ruby was his late wife.
Ruby was a star.
According to astrophysics, the more massive the star, the faster it burns up its fuel supply, and the shorter its life. Ruby Murray was that supernova. A painfully shy, unassuming “wee girl” from the Donegall Road, Belfast with a talent of absolute magnitude.
She was barely out of her teens when she had five top-ten hits in the UK charts. 1955 was her year. She holds the record for having one song in the charts without a break for 52 weeks. Her record of five hits in the top ten has only even been matched once, posthumously by Michael Jackson.
Her story is extraordinary and has been examined with a special sensitivity, pride, and purpose in ‘Ruby and the Duke’. It is an important and essential documentary for this city’s cultural archive, a story that with the passing of time would otherwise dwindle into obscurity. Ruby Murray deserves legendary status, but say her name to many under fifty and they’d barely blink. As David Holmes says in the documentary – she was of our parents’ era, we know her songs because they played the records or sang along.
Eastside Arts has had the wherewithal to include this screening on its programme. Director Michael Beattie had the insight and wisdom to make the documentary in the first place, and Duke Special recognised a kindred soul and became immersed in the project.
First screened on RTE in 2011, it’s a beautiful, sad and remarkable story. It’s as fine an example of the art of the documentary as you can get, made all the more special by the inspired choice of Peter Wilson (The Duke) as conduit.
Michael Beattie outlines how the project came to be – as if it was simply meant to be – how once an idea starts freewheeling, it gathers momentum and moss. People, places, and things fall into place.
He explains why he felt Duke Special (Peter Wilson) was best placed to take on the task… mixing nostalgia, music, and glamour. He blasts from the past, on an old pump organ made in 1878. First is Ruby’s 1955 hit ‘Happy Days, Lonely Nights’, originally written in 1928, followed by her signature tune, ‘Softly, Softly’.
It is a soulful introduction to the screening.
Interviews with Paul Gambaccini, Phil Coulter, David Holmes, John Bennett interspersed with intimate and enlightening conversations with her children Julie and Tim, to deeply emotional, enlightening and eloquent commentary by her ex-husband Bernard Burgess.
But most of all, it’s Ruby’s own voice that shines through. Her speaking voice in an early nineties Radio Ulster interview is insightful. Singing from the time she could stand, often in pubs and concert halls around Belfast, a generally happy childhood was marred when evacuated during the war to a place where she felt treated cruelty – an attempt to knock that ‘precociousness’ out of her failed. Ruby just kept on singing – but the experience changed her. She never forgot it.
Desperately shy, wide-eyed and innocent, the outrageously talented teenager was whisked away to the glamour and elegance of 1950s London, with her housewife mother as manager, a big mistake when the record deals were signed, it would later transpire.
The story unfurls: the right place at the right time, television has just become common place, and Ruby’s star soars. Post-1955, the world changes and Ruby’s demure and innocent charms are so last year. Rock ‘n’ roll explodes, Bill Haley’s comets take over and Elvis steals the scene. ‘The teenager’ has arrived along with popular culture. Ruby’s brand declines.
She marries another entertainer after a whirlwind romance; her parents disapprove. Over the next few decades, Ruby continues to have a career, but that meteoric rise of 1955 is never to be repeated. It belongs to another time.
Ruby’s talent never deserts her, but neither do the nerves and shyness that often overwhelmed. She slowly, sadly, tragically, declines into alcoholism. By 1977 her marriage is over. She sings – it’s what she does – nightclubs, cabaret, seaside seasons, that sort of thing.
In 1996, she dies aged 61, from liver cancer. In the last year of her life, she is reconciled with the love of her life, Bernie Burgess. He is left bereft by her death. Yet, the shy girl from the Donegall Road with the wide eyes and the beautiful voice left a massive legacy, which this documentary has protected and preserved in perpetuity.
Somewhere in Sutton Coldfield, we made an old man very happy tonight, just by being here. Nice work Eastside Arts.